‘Nameless Pain’ by Elizabeth Drew Barstow Stoddard is a five stanza poem that follows a consistent rhyming pattern of AABB CCDD, etc. There is a lot of emotion that can be read into these lines, especially those in the first and last stanza, that is not explicitly stated. Often the speaker is trying to convince herself of something she doesn’t believe or convey a message by not delivering it.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how she believes she should be happy with her life. She is a mother and a wife, what more could she want? No matter how much she has told herself this, she still is not content.
Her days are long and identical in their progression. While she is blessed with the fact that she does not have to work or worry about money, she is also cursed by the fact that she could not if she wanted to. The only thing that changes about her days is the aging of her child and the color of his hair. I
n the cage that is her home, she sits and reads poetry. This does little to soothe her as she is still stuck in a place she does not want to be. ‘Nameless Pain’ concludes with the speaker stating that she believes even if she got out of this situation, she still would not be happy.
Analysis of Nameless Pain
I should be happy with my lot:
A wife and mother – is it not
Enough for me to be content?
What other blessing could be sent?
The speaker begins this poem with a tentative assertion about what she thinks she should feel and believe. Her uncertainty about this fact, an integral part of her life, creates a divide in her that spawned the poem.
She begins by saying that she “should be happy with [her] lot.” She knows, or at least wants to believe, that she should be happy with the life she is living. She is both a “wife and mother,” and from what the world has told her, this should be enough for her to be happy. It is clear just from the fact that she is making this statement that she is not happy; that she is questioning her life.
She finishes the stanza by asking, what else could she possibly hope for? What other “blessing[s]” are there in life?
A quiet house, and homely ways,
That make each day like other days;
I only see Time’s shadow now
Darken the hair on baby’s brow!
In the following stanzas of ‘Nameless Pain’, the narrator speaks about her life in both positive and negative terms. Often referring to the same aspect differently, when seen from another perspective. She is blessed with a “quiet house” and consumed by all parts of her “home.” To many, and to her on some occasions, this is a wonderful thing. But, it makes “each day” like every other day. There is no change to her routine or the things that she sees. Her life is identical day in and day out. The only real change she is ever party to is the passage of time on “baby’s brow.” She can see her child aging through the darkening of his hair.
No world’s work ever comes to me,
No beggar brings his misery;
I have no power, no healing art
With bruised soul or broken heart.
Once more the speaker presents two sides to her story. It is a blessing and a curse the fact that “no world’s work ever comes to me.” She does not have to work to support herself or worry about where her money is going to come from. On the other hand, this only increases her boredom. She is not an active participant in society, it is as if she is trapped inside her timeless house, without any real emotion. She does not experience “misery,” nor any feeling of “power.” There is no outlet for who she is, or what she wants, such as “healing art.”
No one and nothing is there to remedy her “bruised soul” and “broken heart.”
I read the poets of the age,
’Tis lotus-eating in a cage;
I study Art, but Art is dead
To one who clamors to be fed
From her domestic prison, she has read something of the world. She is a connoisseur of poetry and from her “cage” she has read the greatest poets “of the age.”
In this stanza, she specifically mentions “lotus-eating.” This could be a reference to the long piece, “The Lotus-Eaters” by Lord Alfred Tennyson. It also makes sense dramatically as in this piece Odysseus’s men, stuck on the island of the lotus-eaters, partake in the lotus and lose all will to sail onward. She is stuck in a similar fashion.
From her home, she also studies art, but because she is unable to participate in it or see anything outside of her home, art is not her biggest concern. To someone like her, “who clamors to be fed,” art might as well be dead.
With milk from Nature’s rugged breast,
Who longs for Labor’s lusty rest.
O foolish wish! I still should pine
If any other lot were mine.
The speaker is “clamoring” for some part of the real world. She is longing to be fed, “with milk from Nature’s rugged breast.” The emptiness of her life is starving her and she wants to truly feel what it is like to live. Additionally, she is seeking out the feeling of a hard day’s work. She desires to know how one feels after laboring all day and then falling into a “lusty rest.”
In the final lines of ‘Nameless Pain’, she dismisses everything that she has said before. She wants to believe that all people feel this way, and if she was to get what she asked for, she would just find something else to desire.
About Elizabeth Drew Barstow Stoddard
Elizabeth Drew Barstow Stoddard was born in 1823 in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts. As a young woman, she gained an education at Wheaton Female Seminary and then married Richard Stoddard in 1851. Throughout their lives together they had three children, two of whom died when they were only infants.
Stoddard’s social life contributed to her rising poetic prowess. Oftentimes her home played host to literary gatherings and in the mid-1850s Stoddard began contributing work to journals and writing for the newspaper Daily Alta California. Throughout her life, she wrote three novels and a number of short stories. She also spent time writing children’s stories and focusing on poetry. Her volume Poems, published in 1895, focuses on the myriad of problems inherent in domesticity.